J Street's Half-Truths and Non-Truths About Its Funding

Earlier today, I wrote a post about J Street's funding. There is more to the story.

A set of half-truths, non-truths and ambiguities from J Street lead a reasonable person to conclude that the group tried to conceal that George Soros has been one of its largest donors for the past three years, and to falsely claim that it had been "open" about those donations during that time. J Street also seemed to distort the fact that it received a large contribution from a donor in Hong Kong. Some of this happened on the phone with me earlier today.

J Street called me up this morning and disclosed that it had successfully grown its fundraising since forming in 2007 and that Soros and his family have given the group $250,000 a year over the past three years, a fact that was in the process of being verified and reported by The Washington Times' Eli Lake.

"That was very public," J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami told me of J Street's history with Soros, explaining that Soros came to an earlier donor conference and told the group he wouldn't give money at first. "What he said was, if you get going, I'll take a look at it again."

This was after a J Street spokesman told me on the phone today that Soros's donations are something the group has "always been up front about." This point was reiterated on a three-way call with spokesman Matt Dorf and Ben-Ami. The group has been "open" about it over the past three years, J Street told me.

Last night, on its website, J Street had this to say about Soros donations: that Soros had not been a founding or primary funder of the group, and that it would be happy to take his money were he to offer it. Which implies that Soros was not giving money to J Street, even though he was.

From the J Street website:

Liberal financier George Soros founded and is the primary funder of J Street.

George Soros did not found J Street. In fact, George Soros very publicly stated his decision not to be engaged in J Street when it was launched - precisely out of fear that his involvement would be used against the organization.

J Street's Executive Director has stated many times that he would in fact be very pleased to have funding from Mr. Soros and the offer remains open to him to be a funder should he wish to support the effort.

J Street has thousands of donors, large and small. The supporters of the political action committee (JStreetPAC) can be publicly reviewed on the website of the Federal Election Commission. The top donors to J Street are members of the organization's Finance Committee - listed in its annual report on page 9 (PDF). Many of its major donors are also members of its Advisory Council.

The part of the website dealing with Soros had not been updated for three years, until last night.

J Street confirmed that it added a new "Myth" last night: that "J Street has said it doesn't receive money from George Soros, but now news reports indicate that he has in fact contributed." A disclosure of Soros' donations follows below on the page, which you can see here.

This, to me, is quite different from being "open" about Soros' funding.

Asked later why J Street would falsely imply that Soros had not given money to the group, J Street spokesman Matt Dorf said the wesbite was accurate. He denied that the phrasing "should he wish to support the effort" implied that Soros was not already supporting the effort.

Soros had not been a founding member, Dorf said, and he was not the primary funder. Dorf raised questions about whether it would have been appropriate to disclose Soros's donations, given that they were made to J Street's 501(c)4 nonprofit. 501(c)4 groups typically do not disclose their donors, and the IRS does not make donations public.

This has been a point of contention over J Street since it was formed: blogs and opinion writers critical of the group at its inception in 2007 have alleged that Soros was a founding donor and seeded the group with money at its outset--a point that J Street denies. The website section was constructed to push back on those rumors.

More broadly, Soros is seen as toxic to the American Jewish community, having suggested that Israel's policies contributed to global anti-Semitism. President Obama, at one point, had to distance himself from Soros because of Soros's views on Israel.

Ben-Ami and the spokesman also distorted an $811,697 donation from one donor in Hong Kong, Consolacion Esdicul, which Lake reported based on an obtained 990 IRS tax form.

The donation came from Pennsylvania-based liberal donor Bill Benter, they said.

Here's how the conversation went: In listing J Street's biggest donors, Ben-Ami identified Benter, telling me Benter had raised and given "at least $800,000 in the first two years...specifically [Benter] has secured roughly $800,000 in support from associates in the prior two years." Dorf phrased it thusly: that the $800,000 was "raised and given by [him] and from associates including in Hong Kong."

J Street later confirmed that $811,697 came in payments over the years all from one donor, Esdicul, solicited by Benter.

Asked if he considered it accurate to identify this money as having come primarily from Benter (the solicitor), without mentioning that it was all from Esdicul, Dorf said, "I do. That's certainly how Jeremy looked at it. It came from her, Bill raised it. Bill raised this money for J Street." Dorf said Esdicul is an associate of Benter's.

There are a lot of ins and outs to this. J Street was indeed "open" about the fact that it would welcome Soros donations. It was not "open" about the fact that Soros was giving it money. The $811,697 in donations over three years from one Hong Kong donor were not explained in such exacting detail.

Soros money is not generally considered to be a good thing by many in the Jewish community, though many Jewish progressives--J Street's target audience and support base--have no problem supporting other Soros-funded initiatives, so perhaps Soros is entirely uncontroversial to J Street's target base. Foreign influence in American lobbying is considered a sensitive issue.

Once can see the incentive for J Street to be less than up front about all this.

UPDATE: A J Street spokesperson says Ben-Ami has acknowledged Soros's donations to reporters on numerous occasions and suppled this as published evidence of prior acknowledgement: Occasional Jerusalem Post columnist Lenny Ben-David, a critic of J Street, wrote that Ben-Ami had previously acknowledged Soros funding at a small gathering in Florida. In a comment posted to an op-ed Ben-Ami placed in the Jerusalem Post in January, Ben-David commented:

Last month Ben-Ami spoke before a group of donors in FL where, according to participants, he admitted that financier George Soros was a founder and funder. The JP already exposed pro-Arab, pro-Iran donors.

There is a dearth of public admissions, or denials, of Soros funding by Ben-Ami--in fact none, that I've found--so it's difficult to ascertain how open J Street was about the donations, from any source other than its un-updated web page.